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An Engaging Look at 'Santero Traditions'


The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History has a happy knack for clear presentation of multilayered exhibitions. The latest is "Cuando Hablan Los Santos: Contemporary Santero Traditions From Northern New Mexico." Like most recent Fowler shows, it manages to be socially significant, aesthetically engaging and intellectually stimulating all at once.

The traveling survey was originated by the University of New Mexico's Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and organized by its chief curator, Mari Lynn Salvador, who also wrote the somewhat stiff, slightly muddled catalog along with several other contributors. Their research focuses on 13 present-day santeros who continue making carved and painted bultos, retablos and reredos designating, respectively, carved figures, painted panels and altar screens.

Historically the roots of this art are buried in the 17th century Spanish colonial period. Indigenous craftsmen were drafted to make devotional objects for Catholic churches. Results blended European baroque and native styles into an original hybrid. In the beginning the activity was purely liturgical.

Required skills were passed on through the generations, often within the same family. This remains true. The bulk of artists on view come from one of two clans, the Romeros of Santa Fe or the Lopezes of Cordova. There is even a section displaying work by their small children and teenage offspring to underline the point.

The market for this art, however, is no longer exclusively the church. Today, community and commercial galleries represent the artists, cosmopolitan collectors acquire their pieces, and museums build them into collections. Although the artists abide in their own communities, they also live in contemporary reality, going to school, taking jobs, watching TV, working with power tools, and broadening their horizons by traveling to openings and cultural events in places far from home.

Thus the exhibition obliquely challenges certain articles of faith held sacrosanct by the devout of the art world. One insists that exposing indigenous art to commercialization and the influence of mainstream culture always wrecks it. Another draws a rigid distinction between that which is deemed sophisticated and that which is denigrated as primitive.

If looking at this art doesn't pulverize these prejudices, it certainly exiles them to the realm of the relative. On evidence, it appears that if artists have their inner priorities straight, they can make superior work under changing circumstances.

Luis Tapia, for example, has acted as a social activist for his community and was included in the mainstream-oriented national exhibition "Hispanic Art in the United States." His traditional death cart "Santa Fe Blue Carreta" is as angry as anything ever made by a German Expressionist. His "Two Peters Without Keys" updates the motif of St. Peter standing before the gates of heaven. In Tapia's subtly subversive version, the saint is divided into two tattooed tough-guy dandies near a barred gate that could easily be seen as the entrance to a prison. Or the exit.

Le Roy Joseph Lopez takes a more traditional approach in "Mary's Fifth Sorrow," but it's as unpretentious and affecting as a 15th century Netherlandish crucifixion. The same may be said of Joseph A. Lopez's "Christ in the Tomb." The bier looks like a common Southwest-style bed, which contributes to its sense of universal pathos.

When we think of formal eloquence in Modern art, the mind invariably focuses on names like Brancusi and Picasso. They and many another Modern masters owed their power to the influence of various indigenous forms. One is reminded of Gertrude Stein's wonderful crack that went, in effect, "I don't care much for African art. It's too sophisticated."

So it's not surprising to find so much sheer felicity of shape, proportion and invention on view. If the artists have picked it up from Modern masters or their adaptation into commercial design, they're just taking back what their forebears invented in the first place.

The understanding of fundamental forms is typified in the schematized anatomy of Jose Benjamin Lopez's impressive "Blood of Christ Altar." Simplified shapes and exaggerated proportions enhance the rhetoric of the piece. So does the practice of getting details like hair and fingernails just right and paying careful attention to such details as a realistic crown of thorns.

David Nabor Lucero's "Our Lady of Saint John of the Lakes" makes her basically flat skirt into a perspective cone that creates a very canny optical illusion. Gloria Lopez Cordova, like several others, achieves reductive purity by leaving her work unpainted. Ben Ortega Sr.'s "Moses and the Burning Bush" aptly leaves the weathered branch from which it's made largely untouched like a found object.

We're reminded that the language of art is one of humankind's earliest inventions. It remains unchanged. It belongs to everybody.

* The UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, through Sept. 7, closed Monday and Tuesday. (310) 825-4361.

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